Cheers! We're a miserable race no longer

The Way We Are Now
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ASSESSING THEIR own happiness does not come naturally to the British. Americans are far better than us at expressing how happy they are at any turn of events. They have daily polls registering minute shifts of delight or dismay at every move President Bill Clinton makes. We get a Mori poll every few months telling us to what new levels of depression British businessmen have sunk.

But the healthy know not of their healthiness, only the sick, as St Matthew's gospel informs us; and thus I wish to propose a controversial thesis: that the inhabitants of the United Kingdom are getting happier, in themselves and about themselves.

Some countries seem able always to speak in one voice, to share national obsessions.Britain's class system has guaranteed that most of its citizens will always be strangers to each other, unable to grasp each other's pleasures, tastes and thought processes. But there are signs that we are becoming more homogeneous. And the more we share enthusiasms and cultural epiphanies, the more we shall feel part of thegang, the mass of British.

The most expressive moment of the British zeitgeist was on 30 June this year when, 16 minutes into the England vs Argentina game, the teenage Michael Owen raced like a whippet through the Argentine defences and whacked the most perfect goal I have ever seen past Carlos Roa, the Argentine keeper. Although I did not see it then - I was collecting my daughter from a school concert. A private school in Dulwich, south London, is not the obvious place to hear World Cup fever break out, but that is what happened.

Among the bourgeois-as-a-Burberry parents seat-belting their Cordelias and Xerxeses into their Galaxys and Espaces, one of them had been listening on the car radio: one penalty, an equalising penalty, then the Owen goal. It was too much. Throwing dignity to the winds, the woman screamed "Two- one! Jesus! Michael Owen!" A mighty ululation rose from throats wholly unused to the terrace chant. It was electrifying.

The World Cup was the biggest and best focus of national feeling in 1998, but far from the only one. And the moments that best captured the zeitgeist were moments in which classes and races and styles of people gotmixed up. Remember the green-welly demonstration on 1 March? The Countryside Alliance was more than a gang of blood-sport lovers; it was the massed ranks of rustic Middle England discovering the pleasures of organised protest. Chaps in soft hats asked each other, "Your first demo too, old boy?", shared hip flasks and arranged to lunch at theAthenaeum. They were the living, walking, brogue-shod heart of Britain and they knew it.

In the most remarkable outbreak of peace in three decades, the Northern Irish peace agreement was drafted, agreed on and adhered to. The ensuing Omagh bomb - a vicious reprisal from an IRA splinter group - was condemned as much by the IRA as by the Government; it really felt as though it might be the last one ever. The triumph of Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, allowed the Hiberno-English in Britain to live in peace with their identity; and showed the British that neither Irish republicans nor Ulstermen need be caught forever in the tentacles of history.

The royals went all democratic. Zara Phillips got a stud in her tongue. Prince William did a rap shuffle for fans in Vancouver. The Queen went into democratic overdrive, visiting a Hackney octogenarian's tiny flat, signing footballs and inviting "ordinary people" to her 50th anniversary dinner at the palace.

Britons even started to feel proud of British designers, if only for the way they (Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano) seemed to be the only people who knew How to Do Fashion in France, called in to head up Paris couture houses.

The modern British bar is where the Nineties generation is most spectacularly on display:moneyed early-twentysomethings, drinking expensive bottled beer, talking projects and money, aspiring to a dream of hyper-efficient, hi-tech, Boateng-suited omnicompetence.

For whatever reasons, several British things that used to be considered embarrassing or rebarbative were reprieved. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was a figure of fun to the press when he left his wife and married his secretary, Gaynor Regan, who has the name of one of King Lear's nasty daughters and the face of an El Greco martyr. Months later, we have mostly forgotten her existence but admired Mr Cook's speeches during the Saddam war (mk II).

British beef was judged to be OK again by the Continentals. The Millennium Dome began to look a thing of beauty.

You could look for reasons for this new national pride in the strong pound or in fin de siecle Little Englandism. It might have more to do with the Labour government which, a Mori poll shows, is as popular as it was at the start of the year, is perceived as proactive, agenda-setting and full of social radicalism.

And soon bars will open until 3am and the British will have even more time to remark on their own wonderfulness, their style and flair, their genius at architecture and the matchless wonder of their biographers. As long as nobody disagrees, we will all get on famously.